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The Anik satellite, launched in 1971, opened the Arctic to modern telecommunications. Much of the Arctic is still served by satellites. Disruption to the Anik F2 satellite in 2011 grounded planes, and disconnected cell phones, banking services and almost all internet services in Inuit communities.

The Arctic is decades behind in digital connectivity
By Terry Audla
If there was ever any doubt, Killaq Enuaraq-Strauss showed us the true power of the internet this past March. The 17-year old from Iqaluit shot a seven-minute video about the importance of sealing in her community. Then she uploaded it to YouTube, and shared it with Hollywood comedian Ellen DeGeneres — and, by extension, the world.

But in many communities in Inuit Nunangat, it is difficult even to watch YouTube videos, let alone upload them. In parts of Nunatsiavut, online infrastructure is in such short supply, the service provider maintains a waiting list for internet customers — someone must disconnect their service and move away before a new customer can join. Crowds of young Killaqs-in-training congregate outside the hotel in Hopedale, site of the only wireless network, for a fleeting glimpse at Facebook.

Canada’s founding fathers dreamed of building a national railway to connect Canadians coast to coast, to close distances, power commerce and unite Canadians. In an information economy, digital infrastructure is the new expression of nation building, and the Arctic is decades behind.

In the human body, diabetics are told, the diminished capacity blood flow to the extremities leads to a breakdown of the central nervous system. Our fingers and toes turn gangrenous and die. Limbs are amputated. The effects on the patient can be fatal.

We like to think of Canada as an Arctic country, but if this is to truly have any meaning, we must keep the blood flowing in both directions. We must keep the patient alive.

As the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation has argued, broadband access is an essential service, and this service needs to be affordable and adequate. Funding is an essential component of this, and NBDC has long argued for long-term and sustainable funding. But too often it has been up to the private sector to determine what level of service is adequate for business and consumers.

“There is a strong argument to be made that significant IT investments would do more than any other form of physical investment,” argued a 2011 Government of the Northwest Territories report,“to assist in developing the social economy and addressing the…poverty and sustainability challenges facing many Arctic communities.”

In March, the federal budget committed $305 million over five years to extend and enhance broadband internet service for rural and Northern communities. It remains to be seen whether this will deliver the target speed of five megabits per second—about twice the top speed currently available. (By comparison, the Obama government set a goal of connecting 100 million people at speeds of 100 megabits per second by 2020.)

In April, the government launched a digital strategy aimed at connecting and protecting Canadians as we approach the 150th anniversary of confederation in 2017. Largely filled with techno-populist buzz phrases such as debundling cable packages and cellphone tower location, it is yet to be seen whether it it will bring bandwidth to the Arctic in any meaningful way before its proclaimed deadline.

The Arctic needs a broader vision for connectivity — one that recognizes not only the wealth contained beneath the land and sea, but in the talent of its people. The Arctic merits an onramp to the information superhighway.